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The Fiddler and the Cricket

by Thomas D. Reynolds

It is Kansas, 1888. A man rides across the plains, over thick prairie grass turned coarse and brown, the sole indication of the season’s change. The air is oddly crisp, with a biting wind that nips flesh like wires piercing skin. The sky is overcast, yet a dark blue mass swirls on the west horizon. Or is it dust, the man thinks, heart thumping, pulling his coat tight around his throat.

He wishes he hadn’t come, yet they’ll be counting on him, the only fiddler in two counties. Even if his hands are so calloused and gnarled that sometimes the tunes he plays are impossible to recognize, full of squawks and tempo shifts, causing wags to shout out new names for them, like “Turkey in the Thresher” and “The Henhouse on Fire.”

He’s on his way to Jacob Candle’s farm, the oldest most respected farmer in the county, for the wedding of his homely daughter Sarah (the homeliest in the county, hands down). Candle’s farm is only several miles ahead, over the next rise, but the fiddler’s horse is giving him fits, throwing its head back without warning as if hornet stung, snorting out lungfuls of gray breath, as if there were a fire in its belly that needed stoking.

Across these last tense miles, the Fiddler fights with his horse, urging it on against its will, with a deep groaning now in the sky in the direction of the enormous wall of clouds. The strings of his fiddle utter in the piercing wind-whine a series of low spine-chilling notes, like the song of hate, of God.

When the Fiddler reaches Candle’s farm, those gathered for the celebration are filled with panic. Shouting, men ready their wagons. Snow already begins to spit, yet the general consensus is that there are several hours before the blizzard hits. The Fiddler ties up his horse, walks to the cabin, where about thirty to forty folk bustle about, shouting at once. The Fiddler almost pulls out his fiddle to play a tune, yet many among them have eyes of terror, testifying to the presence of death, which causes them to talk strangely as if speaking in tongues.

The Fiddler sees the bride among the crowd, her beady eyes glazed and uncomprehending, as if she can’t grasp how such a glorious day, the day she thought would never come, has been ruined. Her bony frame leans against the table still spread with the impending feast. For just seconds, her eyes meet the Fiddler’s, as if imploring him to play a tune and set off rounds of applause-notes to make the dark clouds disappear, and let her life begin.

The father, Jacob Candle, stands at the door directing the exodus, wagons pulling off, families attempting to make it home before snow flies in earnest. Amidst all the confusion, the Fiddler hears, from over the door, a soft melodious sound, a cricket’s song, small chirps of inner peace. The cricket’s body is just visible above the frame, crawling from his grasp.

A kindred spirit, playing in his place the song of weddings, of death. Seeing it as an omen of good luck, the Fiddler reaches for the cricket, ties it up in his handkerchief, and places it in his pocket. Then he strides for the door, unties his nervous horse, and rides for home, away from the darkening mass. He looks over his shoulder at the man in the wagon, covering his wife and children with a blanket, then whipping his horse, the wild light of panic on his face. The family will not be seen again until the snow melts away in spring, depositing bodies on the spongy ground.

Two miles from Candle’s farm, snow roars around the Fiddler’s horse like a brush fire, burning his skin. It swallows the ground, fences, trees, all in its wake. Though he can feel his horse shivering below him, the Fiddler loses all sight of him, but senses its pain, its breath rising in great labored gasps, then falling away, expelled in quivering spasms. It won’t last much longer, the Fiddler thinks. When he puts his hand before his face, it disappears, giving him the sense he is dissolving, or is being eaten away by the blizzard. Darkness swells around them, horse and rider, as they cross a void of infinite whiteness.

The Fiddler has no notion of how far they’ve come, or what direction they’re headed, only the awareness that he is surely pointed to his death, which circles like a vulture in the white sky. He can feel the sharp wires stabbing feet, hands, and face. Even after he loses movement in toes and fingers, his face an ill-fitting mask, still the pain increases, with the force of great trees being uprooted.

Finally, the Fiddler’s horse gives out, dropping down into the snowdrifts, chest breaking into several volcanic heaves, legs refusing to budge. It utters a last bellow and collapses into sleep, dying within minutes. The Fiddler removes the saddle and blanket, kicking the blanket to crack the ice, and then wraps it around his shoulders.

He drives himself on, against all hope, in those moments of sleep before death overtakes him. It is then, the Fiddler will tell much later, anticipating our disbelief, that the cricket begins singing, tucked away and forgotten in his coat pocket. The homely song of the cricket rises above the wind scream, an unmistakable voice filling his ears, surrounding him in a blanket of sweet sound, urging him forward.

The farther he goes, the deeper the snow becomes. His legs sink into the softness, falling only deeper when he tries to swim up over the immense wave. Several times he topples over, struggling to his knees, feeling as if he’s drowning, moving his arms and legs in increasingly vain attempts to reach the surface. Yet he can feel his chest heaving, breaking into long gasps, the way his gray horse had before she was buried by snow.

Just when he is resigned to letting go, he hears the cricket, softer now but still echoing in his ears, above the wind’s howl. He can feel through his coat the vibration of its legs, the steady hum traveling through his body, through layers of skin frozen by wind.

The Fiddler rises to his knees one last time, stands up, walks three steps, and drops through a cloud of whiteness, down through what seems the shaft of a well but what must be a snow-filled ravine. When the Fiddler lands softly into a snow bed, he curls up, wrapped the horse blanket around him, then lets go.

At some point he becomes aware that the song has stopped, that the cricket is undoubtedly dead, and he, just as surely, is next.

He gives in to sleep, dreaming that he is in Heaven, that he is the fiddler who plays for the recently dead, still sick and weary from the blizzard. Their limbs and bones are still frozen, voices scarcely able to speak. And the Fiddler plays for them at their first gathering, when they are still so tired and cold that they don’t mind the wrong notes, the tempos that quicken and slow without warning.

The Fiddler dreams his music gives them great comfort, and that he returns the next night, riding a great distance on his gray horse, to play for the next group, and the next, and the next, through all eternity.

When the Fiddler awakes, he is struck by the great silence, by darkness and coldness that surrounds him, and then he remembers the blizzard, and all that has befallen him, from the wedding to his falling into the ravine, and he knows he has survived.

He climbs out through layers of snow, walking on feet swollen and black across a landscape burned white by the sun. For years he is the talk of many gatherings, at weddings and dances across two counties, for his story of the blizzard, his mention of the singing insect, and for his fiddle, on the back of which he has scratched with a penny nail the clear outline of a cricket in commemoration of his miraculous return.

Copyright © 2006 by Thomas D. Reynolds

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